Serving up new ideas to keep food fresher

New packaging is one of the ways to extend the shelf life of fresh food products. Picture: Getty

New packaging is one of the ways to extend the shelf life of fresh food products. Picture: Getty

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INNOVATION is playing a role in making sure consumers benefit, along with the environment, says Colette Backwell.

In the UK today, we have access to a wide range of quality, tasty and nutritious food and drink – from traditional favourites to exotic cuisines and less familiar options. Food and drink is for many an enjoyable part of life, bringing people together, adding to celebrations and offering new and pleasurable experiences.

Over the past 100 years, advances in food production, storage and distribution have enabled the industry to ensure product safety, prolong shelf-life, and enhance nutritional value in products. Innovation in food and drink manufacturing has also led to the development of thousands of British brands that are loved the world over and which lead the world in key trends such as health and wellness. Along the way, food industry nutrition experts, development chefs and science and technology specialists have created innovative ingredients, processes and packaging to cater to the changing consumer needs and preferences.

Additives offer a good example of ingredients that bring significant consumer benefit, and many have been used for centuries, such as acetic acid (preservative) or turmeric (colour). Additives are substances that perform specific functions in food and drink products, such as to slow deterioration, enhance flavour, replace colour lost during preparation, or prevent foods from drying out. All additives included in food recipes are evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority, the body responsible for food safety, and must meet certain criteria for use. All approved additives are given an “E number” and where used in product recipes they must be labelled on-pack, either by their name or E number. Companies must also indicate the function they exert on food, such as “preservative”, “colour”, or “stabilisers”.

It may surprise some to learn that many naturally occurring substances have an assigned E number; apples, for instance, contain riboflavins (E101), carotenes (E160a), anthocyanines (E163), acetic acid (E260), ascorbic acid (E300), citric acid (E330), tartaric acid (E334), succinic acid (E633), glutamic acid (E620) and L-cysteine (E920).

It is possible to prepare food without using additives, when cooking at home where food is consumed directly and where there isn’t the issue of maintaining the safety and appearance throughout storage and transport.

When making mayonnaise at home, for example, the emulsion created by beating the egg and oil together is only stable for a couple of days before it starts to separate into its original components. That’s why emulsifiers such as lecithin and polysorbates and stabilisers like alginate and guar gum, which are not usually found in the kitchen cabinet, are relatively common ingredients in ready-made sauces, soups, desserts and ice creams.

As well as innovative ingredients, companies are increasingly developing innovative packaging solutions. These can keep food fresher for longer by controlling in-pack humidity and reducing oxygen migration, as well as monitoring freshness and issuing use-by alerts. Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is a very good example of how physics and technology applied in the industry have considerable benefits for both consumers and the environment. MAP is a way of extending the shelf life of fresh food products, which involves altering the composition of air to remove all or most of the oxygen so that spoilage is markedly reduced. Extending shelf life of products benefits the environment by reducing food waste and at the same making it possible for consumers to access fresher products for longer.

With about 60 per cent of household food waste arising from products “not used in time” (mainly perishable or short shelf-life products, with a value of around £6.7 billion) innovations that keep food fresher for longer are hugely important. In fact, this principle underpins the Waste and Resource Action Programme’s “Love Food Hate Waste” initiative and “Fresher for Longer” campaign, of which the Scottish Food and Drink Federation is a supporter. The campaign encourages consumers to make more use of the information provided on packaging and the packaging itself, to ensure that the way we store food at home keeps it fresher for longer.

From the development of 3D printed food to the application of “smart” packaging, innovation in modern food and drink production is a hugely exciting field. With the societal challenges of over- and under-nutrition, resource sustainability and the need to produce food for a growing population, innovation will also play a vital role in enabling food and drink businesses to support healthier, more sustainable diets.

Having provided just a snapshot of some of the ingredients and solutions used by businesses today, I would encourage those with a curiosity to find out more to explore the wealth of information provided on company, industry and regulator websites, as well as that provided on-pack.

• Dr Colette Backwell is director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation

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